Kill another human being, you will likely spend many years locked away. Murder millions and you will likely evade punishment entirely. The belated trial of surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge conducted by the United Nations and Cambodia affirms this paradox.
From 1975 to 1979, the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge transformed Cambodia into a human slaughterhouse. The Maoist government killed roughly 20 percent of the population, about 1.5 million people, during its brief but bloody rule. The militant atheists forced Muslims to eat pork, killed every other Cambodian Catholic, and felled the population of Buddhist monks from 60,000 to 1,000. The Khmer Rouge abolished money, emptied cities, imposed a drab black national uniform, executed the handicapped as shirkers, and outlawed eyeglasses as a vain capitalist accessory. In their violent wake, the Khmer Rouge left a ravaged population in which women outnumbered men by two to one and minors nearly outnumbered the remaining adults.
Perhaps the strangest thing about these strange atrocities is that nobody was ever really held accountable. Attempting to right this wrong is the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, which is currently trying a case against top officials of the Khmer Rouge government.
The court trying four of the surviving leaders of the Cambodian Communist Party is a joint creation of the United Nations and Cambodia. The defendants in the ongoing trial are “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea, head of state Khieu Samphan, foreign minister Ieng Sary, and Sary’s wife, the minister of social action, Ieng Thirith. The charges against the foursome include genocide, crimes against humanity, religious persecution, war crimes, torture, and murder. The regime’s leader, Pol Pot, died of a heart attack in the custody of fellow Communist guerrillas in 1998.
The trial overflows with controversy. The visual of the infirm accused—with Pol Pot deputy Nuon Chea even wearing a winter cap in the air-conditioned courtroom to go along with his ever-present sunglasses—departing the proceedings for the comfort of their cells has provoked competing reactions. Adding jail time to the punishment of Father Time appears as overkill to some. Others have difficulty finding sympathy for people who engineered the murders of so many. With the ages of the defendants ranging from 79 to 84, whatever time they spend behind bars will certainly be brief.
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